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Heavy Metal Detox: What is it and does it work?

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Heavy metal toxicity is not the name of a rock band. Although — what a great name, right? It is much less fun than that. Instead, as our environments become more compromised by new chemicals and under-regulated industrial practices, heavy metal toxicity is proving itself to be a major threat to global health.

Metals belong in the earth, but usually not in the body. But when they do get in our blood and tissue, they can cause major problems.1 At low enough concentrations, metals like mercury are said to pose little threat. Just like the stuff they use to make teflon, most of us have at least some in our blood. It is only when they exceed the safe threshold that they impart harmful effects. This is what is known as metal toxicity.2

For mercury, the levels considered toxic are generally anything above 10 ng/mL and there are now companies like Everlywell offering at home heavy metals test kits. 

Where are heavy metals found?

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan teaches us the disastrous impact that heavy metals can have when they get into our water supply. Waste water is a significant source of heavy metals. The most common heavy metals found in waste water include arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, nickel, and zinc. 

All of these metals pose a risk for the health of our bodies and for the environment. These metals can find their way into human systems through soil erosion, mining, urban runoff, sewage discharge, insect bites, and conventional farming, to name a few.2

Then there is the problem of fish. Of course, we all know that many species of large fish contain unsafe amounts of mercury. For this reason, it’s best to avoid swordfish and tuna, two species if fish that tend to “bioaccumulate” toxins as they grow in size. Wild salmon is often the best bet for a safe fish with relatively low levels of toxins. 

What are some common heavy metals?

Arsenic

Arsenic is one of many heavy metals that has found itself in the news spotlight recently. Its toxic properties promote cancer formation and growth. It is a component of some pesticides, which gives it easy access to our bodies. Drinking water is easily contaminated by arsenic pesticides, especially in developing countries.3 It has also found in seafood. But the most sensationalized news stories have come from the arsenic found in rice and rice products. Rice grows in flooded fields, making is especially susceptible to arsenic accumulation, more so than other plants. Rinsing and cooking the rice in clean water helps reduce these levels.4 Another way to avoid arsenic contamination is to choose basmati rice, which has been found to contain the least arsenic.5 And as always, we encourage you to buy organic when possible.

Lead

Lead exposure is another dangerous source of metal toxicity. Lead finds itself into the human body through mostly industrialization, smoking, and food and drinking water contamination. You may have heard it being present in gasoline and house paints. It is also found in plumbing pipes, batteries, and even toys. Each trip you take in your car releases lead from the exhaust. In the US alone, more than 200,000 tons of lead is released from car exhausts per year. This enters our water and crop systems and ultimately ends up in our bodies. Lead exposure can reduce the effectiveness of your body natural antioxidants, leading to increased damage from free radicals and oxidative stress.2

Mercury

There’s a good reason mercury thermometers aren’t the norm anymore. Mercury is extremely toxic. Agricultural practices, waste management, and mining all contribute to mercury in our environment. But like most metals, it is also used in unexpected places, like in the paper industry and fluorescent lighting. Mercury is a common cause of heavy metal toxicity and targets the brain. It is a neurotoxic compound that can destroy mitochondrial structures, increase lipid peroxidation, and promote accumulation of neurotoxic molecules.2

For more on avoiding mercury exposure from dental fillings, see John’s post on getting dental amalgams removed

Other Metals

While arsenic, lead, and mercury are certainly not the only metals involved in heavy metal toxicity, they are the ones that find themselves in the spotlight most often.  In fact, there are about 35 concerning metals that one from residential and occupational exposure. Of these 35 metals, 23 are heavy metals. Other culprits include antimony, bismuth, cadmium, cerium, chromium, cobalt, copper, gallium, gold, iron, lead, manganese, nickel, platinum, silver, tellurium, thallium, tin, uranium, vanadium, and zinc. Remember that these metals are expected and in some cases encouraged in small amounts. It is only when they are found in excess that heavy metal toxicity is a concern.2

What do heavy metals do in the body?

Heavy metals enter the bloodstream then travel through the body to enter cells. There they are stored and are able to wreak havoc from within. They can reduce available energy, and target the function of our body systems, including the brain, lungs, kidney, liver and blood systems. Long-term exposure leads to a breakdown in neurological and physical systems. In some cases, repeated exposure over a long period of time can lead to cancer.2

What are the symptoms of heavy metal toxicity?

Heavy metal toxicity can mimic many other diseases and is often misdiagnosed. Because of its effects on the neurological and muscular systems, when very serious it can present with similar symptoms to multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, or muscular dystrophy.2

Self help guru Tony Robbins has done interviews discussing his mercury toxicity brought on by eating too much fish. He claims dementia can often be misdiagnosed mercury or metal toxicity. 

Of course these symptoms can present for a number of different illnesses, however, unexplained headache, achy joints, general inflammation and forgetfulness can all be attributed to heavy metal toxicity. 

Heavy metal toxicity tests 

If you suspect that you may have had exposure to heavy metals, it is important to consult a medical professional. In addition to professional care, embarking on a detox may be a good way to jumpstart the path to optimal health. This can be done through a combination of dietary changes, lifestyle changes, supplementation, and treatments. With a goal of ridding your body of stored heavy metals, a metal detox will benefit almost all systems in your body, especially the liver, as it is the primary detox organ.

However, before you head off on a heavy metal detox protocol, it is always best to test and try to make sure you are dealing with metals in the first place. Everlywell offers an at home metals test that looks for the worst offenders such as: 

  • Arsenic 
  • Cadmium 
  • Bromine 
  • Selenium 
  • Urinary creatinine 

Some functional medicine doctors will encourage a sauna or a brief run prior to taking a metals test as these activities will mobilize toxins and make them more detectable when testing. 

Foods and supplements that promote detox

Overall, some of the claims surrounding heavy metal detox are dubious. This is not to say that a celery juicing protocol can’t work, it’s just to say that the evidence is scarce for many of the compounds commonly identified as metal detoxifiers. 

As such, our first choice are foods and nutrients that strengthen the bodies natural detoxification pathways. 

Glutathione, Superoxide Dismutase, NrF2 and Broccoli 

Chelation is a natural process in the body in which multiple bonds between organic molecules and metals form. Think of it as a tiny police force in your body, trapping, transporting, and ridding your body of heavy metals. Our body is naturally full of chelates.

Glutathione is a strong chelator that has a role in identifying, transporting and excreting metals from the body. Low glutathione is a biomarker for toxic metal overload.6 If you find glutathione levels low on a blood test, NAC is an antioxidant that is effective at restoring levels when they’ve been depleted. 

Since glutathione supplements are poorly absorbed, targeting upstream production of glutathione through a pathway called NrF2 might be advisable, both for metal detox and overall wellness. NrF2 is a genetic pathway that is “turned on” in times of stress, andwhich  helps the body make glutathione. One of the biggest nutrients that activates NrF2 is sulforaphane, an active compound found in broccoli sprouts, so load up on broccoli and cruciferous vegetables. These foods are high in sulfur based amino acids which tend to stick to and remove toxins from the body. 

See also: the power of a broccoli sprout derived drink to detox from air pollution 

Because metals have a high affinity for sulphur-rich peptides, a diet rich in sulphur can encourage excretion of heavy metals. Foods like garlic and broccoli are rich in sulphur and have been studied for their effect on heavy metals. Garlic has even been shown to help prevent kidney damage from oxidative stress brought on my heavy metal toxicity.6

Do keep in mind though that some people who tend to metabolize sulfur more rapidly than others may have sensitivity to a diet very high in sulfur rich foods due to variations in the CBS family of genes. The Gene Food custom nutrition plans include status for the sulfur genes, as well as better known SNPs like MTHFR, as part of the methylation panel. 

Since it is made by the body, glutathione is known as an “endogenous” antioxidant. Another endogenous antioxidant, called superoxide dismutase, also helps the body deal with free radicals and heavy metals. John has written about superoxide dismutase and the SOD2 genes in the past, which is worth a read for those wanting a deeper dive. 

Fiber, Chlorella and Selenium 

Some foods have been studied as natural chelators. They have an ability to reduce absorption or reabsorption of toxic metals. These foods can support a natural detox in your body.

Soluble dietary fiber from a variety of sources, including whole grains, fruits, and vegetables have proven to be potent natural chelates. Fiber can also help regulate gut bacteria and has been proven to reduce levels of mercury in the brain and blood. It is important to note that insoluble fiber, as opposed to soluble fiber, was shown to promote absorption of heavy metals in some cases, so be sure to stick with soluble fibers during a detox.7

Chlorella, an algae derivative and natural polymer, has proven itself an effective natural adsorbent of heavy metals in the body. In a recent episode of the Gene Food podcast, John discussed using chlorella as a travel supplement with Dr. Joel Kahn. 

Additionally, citrus pectin has been shown to reduce some metal build up in the body.

Selenium is an essential element that can act as an antimutagenic agent, preventing mutation and destruction of cells. It can promote the antioxidant capacity of cells, increasing their ability to fight free radicals. Supplementation of selenium has been found to prevent metals from exerting toxic effects on the body. Some natural sources of selenium include brazil nuts and mushrooms.

Cilantro is another food that has shown some promise as a chelating agent, although overall the evidence is lacking. 

In sum, when choosing foods during a metal detox, look toward foods that are loaded with antioxidants to fight free radicals and oxidative stress.

Foods like leafy greens, ginger, turmeric, flax seeds, and chia seeds are all known for their ability to fight oxidation as well.

Danielle Moore

Danielle Moore is a professional recipe developer, Nutrition expert, food photographer and lover of veggies. Read her full bio here.

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